Early mornings the old men stroll beneath the drooping lines, their arms peculiarly ourstretched and slowly flapping as they balance covered bamboo cages in each hand.

With daybreak, they begin to fold back the tin cotton covers and reveal a burst of colorful plumage, suddenly turning the quiet downtown square into a ringing aviary.

Finally it is time to hang the tiny cages like Christmas tree ornaments on sturdy boughs and complete another day of an ancient Chinese ritual -- "exercising" pet birds.

Zhao Aiping, who at 70 never misses a day of this rite, squats in a small circle of friends and announces that he has found a new remedy for a troubling bird eye affliction: crushed spiders.

"You know taking care of a bird like this takes a lot of knowledge," he advised a stranger admiring his chirping huamei, a local ashy starling. "You can't get it in 10 years in the university."

In a nation of constant social change, the dozen or so retirees who gather with Zhao each morning help uphold a Chinese tradition that reaches back centuries. Indeed, the bird culture of China has made a comeback since the inprisoned Gang of Four radicals, who disdained the keeping of birds as a feudalistic holdover, have been locked in cages of their own.

Once again all colors and shapes of winged creatures happily perch in Chinese homes. New, unauthorized markets selling every kind of bird from eagle to parakeet have sprung up in Peking, drawing thousands of customers each day. And the annual Shanghai-to-Peking carrier pigeon contest reappeared this year.

The Chinese love for birds has a very practical side. They make perfect pets in the crowded, poor homes of urban dwellers. They are smaller, cleaner and less hungry than dogs, which are outlawed in Chinese cities.

From a historical angle, birds represent a symbol of social stability. In the rich history of Chinese dynasties, emperors decorated their courts with vividly colored parrots, commissioned bronze sculptures of birds and used falcons for hunting.

Even the peasants of classical times are said to have raised birds. On their way to the fields each morning, according to recollections of that period, they stopped at local teahouses and hung their cages for safekeeping during the day.

Long after the last dynasty, the communist leadership led a campaign that was designed to kill off the pesky sparrows that had been destroying farmers' crops by eating their seeds. Peking residents still remember being instructed to stand in wooded areas and bang metal pots and explode firecrackers to deter birds from alighting on trees.

Without food or rest, millions of the sparrows died. But the antisparrow drive was so successful that it decimated virtually all of the wild birds of China as well. Residents sorrowfully recall how truckloads of birds were carted out of the city.

Slowly, bird fanciers recovered by catching mountain birds and bringing them back to the city. The hobby fluorished until vaigilante-style Red Guards of the late 1960s ransacked homes and destroyed what they deemed to be bourgeois trappings, including many beloved pet birds.

Today, in the more relaxed social and political climate, Chinese bird lovers like the elderly Zhao can indulge their passions. To exercise his two birds, he rises at 4 each morning and walks more than three miles to the Justice Street square where he meets his friends.

On the way, he insist on carrying his feathered friends in an unusual stylized manner. Extending both arms, he delicately holds a bamboo cage in the first two fingers of each hand and raises one flank as he lowers the other like an tottering scale of justice.

"If you do not exercise the birds the right way," he warns, "the birds will not sing."

By the time Zhao returns home, one of Peking's new bird markets assembles in a vacant lot on the west end of town. At 10 a.m. several hundred people have already begun bickering over prices at this outdoor trading post that the government seems to tolerate but not officially sanction.

A tiny, wizened man peers into the cage of a small, dark green bird with a yellow breast. The bargaining begins: "How much per bird?" he asks.

"Three yuan [$2]," replies the seller.

"I'll give you 2 1/2," came back the old man.

"No less than 3," insisted the seller. "You'd pay more than that in a shop."

"Does the bird sing?" asked the old man.

"Yes, it sings very nicely; it's a male," added the seller.

"Then I'll take it," the old man concluded.

The market has a spontaneity found in few public places in Peking. One day recently, young men were balancing colorfully plumed specimens on sticks, eagle owners were bragging how they taught their birds to catch a rabbit dinner and dozens were admiring the vast variety.

There was little argument, however about which bird deserved top honors once a plump, baby-faced man wearing a blue cap ascended a small mound at the far end of the open field and uncovered his cage.

Inside, a large, self-confident huamei resplendent in prominent yellow beak and white eyeshadow delivered a beautiful aria.

Although the owner indicated that his prized bird was not for sale, regular market-goers believe he is hoping for more than $100.

"That is a bird for the old society," one worker observed.